Is racism a grassroots football issue?
- 13 July 2012
- From the section UK
(Warning: Repeated use of very strong racist language)
Chelsea captain John Terry has been cleared of racially abusing QPR's Anton Ferdinand in a case that has once again thrown the spotlight on the issue of racism at football's highest levels. But how serious is the issue at its lowest levels - the grassroots game - played by millions week in, week out?
"You'll be playing and someone will just come up to you and call you a 'Paki'," says Abdul Amin, 23, who plays for West Midlands team AFC Kriss.
"You just try and get on with it. There's no way you're going to get rid of racism from football - but that doesn't make it OK either."
What Mr Amin, who is British Bengali, has to say appears far from uncommon.
The Black and Asian Coaches Association receives up to five reports a week of racial abuse on the pitch, particularly from inner-city areas.
And Mr Amin is not alone in expressing frustration at how it is dealt with.
"What are you going to do? Walk off the pitch and call the game off? I don't see how that sorts anything out. The same if you give the player a ban - he will come back but has he actually changed?" he says.
Sometimes he feels like walking away from the game.
"All you want to do is play football. You don't go there to get abused... racism is at the top of the game and it's at the grassroots. It's everywhere."
Last season claims of racism were seldom far from the headlines.
Liverpool striker Luis Suarez's ban for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra, and the conviction of a student for sending racist tweets to ex-footballer Stan Collymore, were among the highest profile cases.
But Alan White, 25, who runs United Glasgow FC, which has players from 14 nationalities, says the focus is too often on the professional game.
"All the real problems with racism come at grassroots level," he says.
"It comes in places where there is no spotlight on it, where ordinary people are mixing."
One of his players, 24-year-old Maxime Duval Neossi, was called a "monkey" during a match last season. The incident was never dealt with.
"Football to me is the only moment where people get together and forget all the issues we face in life, but unfortunately it's not the case," says Mr Neossi, from Cameroon.
Lee Stokes, 26, the founder of AFC Kriss, which counts English, Welsh, Pakistani, Indian, Afro-Caribbean and Portuguese players among its number, says he has seen "many little comments swept under the carpet".
"The worst incident was when we knocked a team out of the cup. After the game some derogatory comments were posted on their website saying 'I can't believe we were beaten by a team full of niggers and wiggers' - a white guy who thinks he is black," he says.
"We showed it to the FA and the man who wrote it was banned from football for five years and the team fined £500.
"But that is the only incident that has ever been dealt with."
In contrast, AFC Kriss player Uzi Varachhia, 28, a British Muslim of Indian descent, says he has never experienced racist abuse but has seen it directed at others.
"It does hurt when you hear it," he says, but stresses: "You don't see much of it at all any more."
There is currently no national pool of statistics on race-related incidents in grassroots football.
Colin King, head of the Black and Asian Coaches Association, says: "There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of incidents but without recording them all centrally we can't say what the extent of the problem is."
The most common reports are of players being called "nigger", others refusing to exchange shirts with black participants and, increasingly, use of social media to send racist messages.
But Mr King says it is not only racist abuse that needs to be confronted - homophobia, sexism and other forms of abuse and violence need to be tackled.
He believes there are a number of reasons why many incidents of racism go unreported.
Racist language can be used "unwittingly", without thought about hurt or cultural implications, says Mr King. Often the attitude is "it's only on the pitch, it's only banter and it's not meant to be racist".
And sometimes there is little confidence the incident will be dealt with, he adds.
Data from the Football Association shows the organisation is "still 98% white and male", says Mr King.
"Many people think it is probably a waste of time to report it."
Jim Lusted, senior lecturer in sociology of sport at the University of Northampton, who began researching racism at grassroots level as part of his PhD, says: "County FAs have historically been run by volunteers, almost all white men, with little appreciation of, or sensitivity to, racism.
"The majority from my research felt racism wasn't a problem at the grassroots.
"When any claims of racism came up, many were waved away as being unfounded, or worse, as ethnic minorities playing the race card to get advantages."
He believes referees should take the lead but admits they often face a "hostile" environment.
"Many may feel it's just easier not to get involved in reporting incidents," he says.
The English FA says its 28,000 match officials face sanctions if they fail to complete paperwork on incidents of racist abuse, and allegations are taken "very seriously".
Troy Townsend, of Kick it Out, football's equality and inclusion campaign, says it is vital victims "feel confident perpetrators will be held accountable".
Action must be pre-emptive, says Manchester FA social inclusion co-ordinator, John Hurst.
He has worked with the city's Jewish league to open it up to non-Jewish players and organised a football festival for the Gypsy and travelling community.
"Talking about the issue and having it out there rather ignoring it" is key, he says.
Mr King says clubs need to see it as a duty of care.
"If I was being pessimistic, we are just touching the surface - we're just beginning to understand people's attitudes and values," he says.
"If people simply learn the way to talk to each other then that's OK, but we're not going to the real roots of what causes racism in football and in wider society."